Black Bears and Black Bear products are in use for medical purpose in many countries across the Indian ocean. Stories about this animal were gathered and written by students. They are all part of a pedagogical project, funded by the National University of Singapore and the Université de Paris. The Bestiary site is a work-in-progress and a participatory educational tool, representing animals whose products or body parts are used to promote health and healing.
A story by Chu Jie Ting
The Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus) also known as white-chested bear is native to Asia and lives in the Himalayas, and some parts of Iran, Korea, India, Japan, Taiwan and China. It has black fur, a brown muzzle and a distinct white patch on its chest, hence its name. A medium-sized bear species, it is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN red list, due to deforestation and poaching for its body parts, which are used in traditional medicine.
Bear bile is said to have medicinal properties, especially to treat and prevent liver cancer. It was first used in North Korea and Japan, and started being used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in the mid-nineteenth century (Chee 2021). As a result, bear bile is highly priced on the Asian market, and can cost upwards of ten thousand US dollars. This gives poachers an attractive incentive to hunt the Asiatic black bear and harvest their gallbladder to obtain the bile. Furthermore, the existence of legal bear farms have exacerbated the cruel methods of obtaining bear bile, through insertion of catheters and harvesting the bile while the bear is still alive. The bears are often kept in small cages and in unhygienic conditions, where their open wounds and unsanitary environments cause infections, and sick bears may be left untreated. Many die after succumbing to these brutal injuries, while those who survive are left to endure excruciating pain for the rest of their lives.
Although both pandas and the black bear belong to the same family, pandas are treated like the nation’s royalty. As a symbolic figure of Chinese culture, pandas enjoy a life of luxury, while their black bear cousins suffer a tragic fate. This highlights how human relations to animals are defined by cultural, political and market conditions, which translate into varying extent of control and power of humans over animals. The naturalist views shared by majority of people around the world inform the extractive and exploitative human attitudes and behaviours towards nature for benefits and power.
Value in Asian medicine
Bear bile has a chemical compound called ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which is medically proven to dissolve gallstones and help in liver diseases. Western medical treatment of gallstones includes surgery or medication to be taken for months or years. The treatment outcome is not permanent cure, because the gall stones may form again when the medication is stopped. Therefore, bear bile is seen as a miraculous alternative to these currently available options to treat and prevent liver diseases, including liver cancer.
Historically, bear bile has been traded extensively both inside and outside of China as a high value good worth more than its weight in gold. Hence, there exists a large incentive for the mass production of bear bile, which adopt the most economical methods with little considerations for care. In China, bear bile obtained from captive bears is considered legal, whereas bile from wild bears is illegal. Captive bear bile is also considered inferior to the bile from wild bears, hence, the captivity of Asiatic black bears may not decrease the demand for wild bears, and may even promote illegal poaching.
People’s perception of nature, where wild products are seen as better than captive ones, informs the varied activities of bile production in legal farms and through illegal poaching. Perhaps awareness about the conditions of captivity also contributes to the demand for products from the wild and natural environment. Yet, the human relationship with nonhumans and wildlife is predominantly of commodity consumption and utility, rather than one of sacred or purposeful coexistence. This approach is common in many areas across Asia, where animals are utilized for food and medicine more than for work in agriculture.
The Chinese government recently recommended an injection containing bear bile as a treatment for COVID-19. This came after a month of implementing bans on the trade and consumption of wildlife after the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world. It alarmed several animal conservationist groups and prompted them to highlight the mixed messages that the Chinese government was giving its people. Moreover, bears cramped into small cages in unhygienic conditions are the exact recipe for zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 to spread.
Enterocytozoon bieneusi is an intracellular parasite, which can only be found in the cells of its host, including the Asiatic black bear. E. bieneusi causes diarrhoea to varying degrees in its host and it is known to be a zoonotic disease which can also infect humans. In a typical healthy individual, E. bieneusi causes mild diarrhoea symptoms. However, it can cause life-threatening diarrhoea in individuals with a compromised immune system, like AIDS, organ-transplant or cancer patients. There is a risk of mutation associated with any zoonotic disease, which may increase its pathogenicity and infect humans through other animals, if the spread is left uncontrolled. Hence, a fundamental shift in perception of nature and animals may be essential to curb the spread of zoonotic diseases, especially in the contexts of wildlife trade in China and other regions of Asia.